Aaron Eckhart Discusses His Approach to Playing Real-Life People

Few actors have balanced blockbuster movies with independent film as successful Aaron Eckhart, who first burst into the public consciousness with a blistering, unapologetic turn in Neil LaBute’s 1997 feature debut, “In the Company of Men.” That star-making role earned Eckhart an Independent Spirit Award and set him on a path of complicated but often lovable antiheroes. Since then he’s gone on to appear in such beloved franchises as “The Dark Knight” and the “Olympus Has Fallen” series while delivering acclaimed turns in smaller-budget fare like “Thank You for Smoking” and “Rabbit Hole.”

His current slate is a perfect example; he’s co-starring with Tom Hanks in the Clint Eastwood-directed hit “Sully” as stalwart co-pilot Jeff Skiles. And later this month he’ll be seen in “Bleed for This” from writer-director Ben Younger. It tells the true story of world champion boxer Vinny Pazienza’s determination to get back in the ring after a near-fatal car accident. Eckhart plays Kevin Rooney, a former boxer who trained the likes of Mike Tyson before alcoholism tore apart his life. Eckhart is earning raves for his work, and will be honored at the Hamptons Intl. Film Festival on Oct. 7 with Variety’s Creative Impact in Acting Award.

This is shaping up to be a really great fall for you.
I have to say, I’m enjoying it. I’m really proud of the movies and really proud of the people I worked with and I feel very, very fortunate to have worked with Clint and Tom and Ben and Miles. So I’m having fun.

How did the ‘Sully’ role come your way?
It really came out of the blue. Clint’s casting director kind of went to bat for me and showed Clint some of my stuff and really put his neck out. Then Clint gave me a call. I’ve always wanted to work with Clint and obviously been a huge fan of his since I grew up with his films. It was the first time in a long time I was sort of like a little kid in a candy shop. I was so happy.

“It was the first time in a long time I was sort of like a kid in a candy shop.”
Aaron Eckhart

You’ve been doing this for a while and have had a lot of accomplished co-stars, but are there ever days you still freak out and realize, “I’m working with Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood!”
Every single day. And you know what? I didn’t shame myself for doing it. I am a fan as much as anybody else. Every day I would sit back and watch those two work. Their process, how they work with the crews, I never had my eyes off them. Every chance I could, I would ask Tom questions about his career, his philosophy of acting, anything I wanted to work on in my own career. He sets a tone on the set for the actors. To work with Tom was a huge honor for me. He’s one of our best actors and has given these iconic performances. And I wasn’t let down; they were total pros.

You’re portraying real people in back-to-back films, do you have much experience with that?
I also played a football coach in “My All-American” before Kevin Rooney and Jeff Skiles. I hadn’t really done it before to such an extent. Even in ‘Erin Brockovich,’ I’m playing a role — there was a real person, but I didn’t study him. But these last two guys especially, I really concentrated on watching tape on, listening to them, talking to those who knew them. There was much more pressure, because they’re both still alive and in the public consciousness. So I took it very seriously. If I’m going to play real people who are still alive, their lives are going to be affected by this film. So my responsibility as an actor to portray them as closely as I possibly can.

You put on 40 pounds to play Kevin Rooney even though the director said you could wear padding. Why was it important to you to make that physical transformation?
This was a particular time in Kevin’s life — he had been a profession boxer, very fit and lean — and after Tyson fired he let himself go. He began drinking and gambling and didn’t train. That weight helped me match his mental state and it had the same effect on me. I went from a person who trains every day to someone who, three months before the movie, stopped training altogether. And [I] went from eating salads to eating pizza and fries and hamburgers every day. It really got me into this mental state of where Kevin Rooney was.

What’s up next for you?
This entire year I’ve been writing and am looking to direct. I feel like the next thing for me is to try and find my voice in my own films so that’s sort of what I’m concentrating on. I’d love to direct and act at the same time. I don’t want to miss out on the acting because I love it so much. But I’d like to gather all the knowledge I’ve gotten from all the great directors I’ve worked with and put it all to work.

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